“We can’t resolve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” (Albert Einstein)
Conservation biology is basically the „medical science” of natural systems. With well grounded ecological theory, cleverly designed research studies and analytical approach, its aim is to give a „diagnosis” for the status of an ecological system and identify its main treats. Depending on the situation, a number of management interventions are proposed to keep the system in (or improve it to) a desired state. In spite of the huge knowledge generated by science, biodiversity is sharply going down. Where is the problem? In this note I compare two types of knowledge: in one hand, there is the so called „western” world. Here ecological knowledge is generated mostly by scientists (experts) and kept by them and policy makers (institutionalized knowledge). The „real world” reach these information just superficially through mass media, NGO`s or educational systems. In other hand, the ecological knowledge or rural societies from Eastern Europe is still „living” and applied. It is part of their culture. In this (maybe chaotic) note, I compare two types of ecological knowledge from the farmland biodiversity conservation perspective. And their result.
Farmland biodiversity is actually a very frequent target of conservation ecological research. Farmlands witness a sharp decline in biodiversity and this may have serious effects on the quality of their services (e.g. food, water). The reasons are multiple, synergistically interacting and undoubtly human related. The various effects of landuse intensification on biodiversity are well documented by research. Figure 1 shows the number of papers in the topic of agriculture and biodiversity and Europe on the Web of Science (WoS) from 1993 to 2010.
Figure 1. The number of scientific papers available on the WoS database regarding the agriculture and biodiversity in Europe (late April, 2010).
The number of papers shows a quick increase in recent years, as well as the number of citations (Figure 1). This reflects well the urgent need to understand the biodiversity of farmlands (also may reflect increasing funding for this type of research). But is this huge knowledge provided by conservation science enough to stop biodiversity loss? Many policy proposals and regulations appeared, and international conventions were signed to halt biodiversity loss. Undoubtly, conservation science adds a significant input to their formulation and revisions. Are these measures enough to make people aware and motivate for action? The failure of the “2010 biodiversity target” show how efficient we can be in such situations. “Despite the significant progress achieved, we have failed to fulfill the promise to substantially reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity adopted eight years ago by the 110 Heads of State and Government attending the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development.” – this was the first sentence of the statement of Mr. Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (18 January, 2010 – Informal expert workshop on the strategic plan of the convention for the post-2010 period). New, “post 2010 period” strategic plans are proposed. It is always easier to push the target a bit ahead in time than to take an immediate action (a good question could be: what kind of actions is needed? Or: what kind of socially acceptable actions can be taken? Are there any such actions? The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) is not optimistic at all about our future).
Knowledge, attitude and societies
I wonder how much the actual conservation science contributes to the development of "conservation" thinking and attitude. Of course, conservation biologists cannot be blamed for what they do: their job is to do research and establish a “diagnosis” about a specific system according to their best knowledge. (about research paper industries maybe in an other note…) Many developments are made to improve the statistical tools and spatial tools to help in this process. The message of conservation biologists should be used by decision and policy makers (and eventually they do it) to improve the quality of environment and shape the attitude of people. However, as the evidences show, biodiversity is sharply decreasing in developed “western” countries. Development is now affecting even the most precious protected areas of Europe (look for example the Białowieża forest, Natural Parks from Romania etc.). Habitat fragmentation and loss continues and it is spatially extending, populations are going extinct and the quality of the environment is decreasing. The overall response to this sharply increasing destruction of natural systems seems to be the increase of funds to make even more conservation research. This research may or may not (mostly not, I feel) “make the difference”. In this way, with all brilliant research and scientific knowledge and “good intentions” we witness a further degradation of the environment. Certainly, research based understanding is needed – but is it enough? Figure 2 shows the number of scientific papers available at the WoS (16 of July 2010) about farmland birds in some European countries. My intention was to see how the available scientific knowledge is distributed across Europe. The pattern is interesting.
Figure 2. Map of some European countries with the number of papers about farmland birds accessible on Web of Science (16 of July, 2010). The keywords entered in the "Topic" were: "farmland bird ...", where "..." represent the country name (e.g. Hungary, Poland, Romania).
First, it clearly shows that a high amount of scientific knowledge is concentrated in some Western countries. Generally these countries are well impacted by human activity and a lot of population decline and loss is reported from these areas. Contrary, Eastern Europe seems to be a white spot with respect of scientific information. I don’t have statistics to show (I am too lazy to do this) but it seems that the biodiversity richness pattern would show a totally opposite trend (over simplified in Figure 3).
Figure 3. Western and Eastern trends in scientific and traditional knowledge, gross domestic product (GDP) and biodiversity richness in farmlands.
Knowledge and practice – some quick remarks
In “western” world, it seems that the ecological knowledge is mainly restricted to academics and it is highly institutionalized (as the whole society). Of course, it is present in the educational system and mass media too, mainly to contribute to the “general culture” of people. However, it is clear that an educational system embodied within a “western type” of socio-economical system may not be powerful enough to lead to qualitative changes in society level and “push it” toward sustainable development. Simply because this would undermine the fundaments of such a society. And “nobody” really wants such a thing. To achieve this, other type of knowledge and other type of “social matrix” is needed. Figure 4 present a simplified model to compare two types of ecological knowledge and their relation with the real world.
Figure 4. A simplified “model” to show the relation between “ecological knowledge” and the “real world” in developed (typically referred as “western”) and developing (Eastern Europe) world. The point is that in “western” societies there is an increased gap between the ecological knowledge critical for conservation and the real, applied world. Only a little amount of scientific knowledge is applied and nature is seen as something that need to be harvested (exploited). Nothing can stop human development (which should always occur: more buildings, more roads, more food production etc.). In Eastern European traditional rural communities “knowledge” and “practice” are hand in hand.
If the model presented in Figure 4 is (approximately) right, it can generate interesting thoughts about limits and possibilities of biological conservation in a real, human shaped world. For example how to think about sustainable use of resources in a world where resource use is not linked conceptually to ecologically functional natural systems (which provide them)? How to think about sustainable development and biological conservation in a society broken in pieces, and these pieces often function as “tribes”? How to protect biodiversity when the great majority of the society is basically isolated from nature and frequently have a deformed image about what nature is and how it works? I think the answer is simple. It is impossible. The question is: when and in which form will be this realized. And what will be the consequences of such a realization? Because if it will, this would be the start of a new type of thinking about the place and role of human beings in the world. And may have consequences (more positive than now…) on traditional rural societies (see below) too.
The situation of traditional rural communities in Eastern Europe (in Romania for example) is very different. Traditional rural communities are both culturally and through resource dependence linked to their landscape. They are always open to receive “feedback” from these systems about the system state. According to these feedback they are open and willing to adjust their “impact” (ways of managing lands) to keep system functional. And they manage to keep natural systems in a very “good shape” for centuries. Western Europe only now start to discover that farmlands of Transylvania are so species rich. Waters are clean, soils fertile. And people lived there for centuries, making farming. What is this if not the much needed and advocated “sustainable development”?. Recent studies show that traditional rural communities have a huge knowledge about biodiversity, habitats and landscape and this knowledge is comparable to scientific knowledge. Biodiversity conservation in cultural landscapes cannot be achieved by ignoring the huge and “holistic” knowledge of traditional communities about their landscape. In other words: biodiversity conservation cannot be achieved in these landscapes by forcing these people to be “institutional” (in western sense) and think in a binary way. Contrary, biodiversity conservation in these landscapes can be assured only through promoting traditional rural life. I would say: traditional communities of Eastern Europe may and should receive a protective status as the rare, endangered species. Because they still have “that” knowledge, which is threatened by the massive machinery of cultural homogenization. This forced cultural homogenization comes in Eastern Europe e.g. through pushing traditional lifestyle to the threshold of illegality (as it is with the transhumance of Romanian pastoral systems) and/or making traditional farming economically unprofitable (traditional farmers are very poor. This was not always like this. Just one decade ago for example, in a small village near Sighisoara, there were up to 200 cows. Now, there is only one. And no sheep’s. And only one horse. People are poor, humiliated, frustrated and destroyed). There is an urgent need to conserve and help these societies maintain traditional and environmental friendly knowledge and lifestyle. If not, with all the “conservation knowledge” and good intentions, Western Europe and the world will witness the loss of whole socio-ecological systems. And I am afraid that this will be immortalized in some trendy conservation journal by some research paper industry. And the basic story will continue…
Molnár, Zs. and Babai, D. 2009. Comparison of traditional Hungarian Csángó and scientific habitat-related knowledge. In: Splechtna, B. (ed.): Preservation of Biocultural Diversity, University of Natural Resource Management and Applied Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria, pp. 133-141.
Tryjanowski, P., Hartel, T., Báldi, A., et al. 2010. Why western ecological models do not always work in Central and Eastern Europe: a case of farmland birds. Acta Ornithologica (submitted).
Wesołowski, T. 2005. Virtual conservation: how the European Union is turning a blind eye to its vanishing primeval forests. Conservation Biology 19:1349-1358.